The crisis of unspecified specificity

Photographer Frank van der Salm beautifully captures architecture on the edge of surreality: uninhabited and lit from within, it’s a world before its people arrive – or half a second after they’ve left.

[Images: ©Frank van der Salm. Sequence (2004) and Square (2006)].

Van der Salm’s work, according to critic Solange de Boer, “has been increasingly influenced since 1998 by other disciplines – ranging from the work of artists like Richard Long, Gerhard Richter and Andreas Gursky to the architecture of Renzo Piano.”
De Boer describes the “reality content” of these photos, and how that content “is undermined in various ways – by introducing movement in the image, by alternating focus and lack of focus, his use of color and the role played by light and artificial light.”

[Image: ©Frank van der Salm, Link (2004)].

However, as impressed as I am by Frank van der Salm’s work – and I am – I have to say that most of the essays re-published on his website are almost unreadable.
Art historians – and art critics, in general – are constantly moaning about there being some sort of crisis in whatever field it is they’re writing about – say, a remarkably well-funded New York photographer loses interest in her chosen subject matter and so becomes glum and sarcastic at cocktail parties, which gets all her other New York photographer friends depressed about the state of the industry, and so Artforum reports a “crisis” in contemporary portraiture – but the “crisis,” if it even exists (and it doesn’t – what was all that about fear-mongering in politics…? fake emergencies announced to receive more funding…?), is that it’s almost impossible to read about art anymore. He says, stoking the fires of fear.
Instead, an outdated vocabulary with no analytic or practical use gets combined with a weirdly unnecessary check-list of theorists and their books; and, all the while, the general public awareness of art in the world becomes limited to Apocalypto.
Which just means that someone at Yale will declare a “crisis in contemporary cinema,” and they’ll promptly be awarded a Mellon Fellowship. Thus armed, they spend a whole year outlining their new Horkheimerian approach to cultural discourse theory – which is a field they appear to have invented.
Only then to declare a crisis in it.

[Image: ©Frank van der Salm, Quarter (2002)].

In any case, while you’re on van der Salm’s website, reading about the “crisis in landscape” – which was experienced by approximately three people, I believe – click on “Artist,” then click on “Text,” then click on “Kopsa.” You’ll soon read that there’s “a kind of unspecified specificity” to Frank van der Salm’s photographs. Indeed, van der Salm’s imagery “relieves the specific” – which only “heightens the impact of the unspecified, the ‘artificial’, if you will.” Van der Salm “shows the specific and the unspecified at the same time, creating from the specific real a (new) unspecified, average.”
Apparently, Rosalind Krauss can even prove this.
Having said that, however, Frank van der Salm’s images are not “average in the dull sense of the word” – not at all: “they are just the opposite.”
And if you’re feeling confused while looking at these images, that is because “we see, recognize and understand” what they depict, but we “cannot accept” them. It even seems “as though we are being alienated by the sheer ‘logic’, by the sheer ‘neutrality’ of these banal images while our mind incessantly runs around in circles, wrapping itself up in the (to it) irrational equation specific + unspecific = artificial.”
I see.

[Image: ©Frank van der Salm, Loop (2005)].

(Frank van der Salm’s work first spotted at Conscientious).

22 thoughts on “The crisis of unspecified specificity”

  1. I wonder if van der Salm read Kospa’s piece.

    Average in the platonic sense– the perfection of average! Really, what is she on about.

  2. Or you could ground it with good old Dr. John, which I happened to read today – sort of anti-bs:

    “Some photographers think the idea is enough. I told a good story in my Getty talk, a beautiful story, to the point: Ducasse says to his friend Mallarmé — I think this is a true story — he says, “You know, I’ve got a lot of good ideas for poems, but the poems are never very good.” Mallarmé says, “Of course, you don’t make poems out of ideas, you make poems out of words.” Really good, huh? Really true. So, photographers who aren’t so good think that you make photographs out of ideas. And they generally get only about halfway to the photograph and think that they’re done….

    A lot of it is just idea mongering. Well, I shouldn’t say a lot of it. The weaker stuff. You think, okay, that’s interesting, and it’s flat, and, of course, that brings us halfway to modern if it’s flat, because modern is flat, right? The whole tradition of modern painting has to do with flatness. So you march straight up to the building, and you get some letters that might be fairly interesting as letters, and maybe they say something that you think possibly has got a little bit of ironic valence. Or a photograph of a building that has been influenced by people whose taste is inferior to your own. You know, that kind of shooting-fish-in-a-barrel sort of thing. And without any affection, without any attempt to understand.”

  3. OK, I am gonna call all of you on this one. It is starting to sound like any old blog here with the negativity and concentrating on the 90% of any field that is bull shit anyway.

    The point of being a conduit for, um, something, is to find what is good and tell us about it. Criticizing art writing is like shooting fish in a barrel.

    Now that you are in LA, why don’t you make the trip to Dangerous Curve and I’ll show you some good art and NOT explain it to you.

    you’ll have to wait until February now though ’cause were between shows. You could also hear some really interesting music in the mean time. We do music about once a week.

    I am with you, though, in general. The interesting thinking right now is in your field, not mine. But we at DC are working to change that. Er, not reduce your field but make ours more interesting.

    Happy Holidays, Geoff. Thanks for helping to make 2006 a wonderful year to be alive.

  4. Thank God. I’m relieved it’s not just my profession that doesn’t have the first clue how to write.

    Present company excepted, of course.

  5. “OK, I am gonna call all of you on this one. It is starting to sound like any old blog here with the negativity and concentrating on the 90% of any field that is bull shit anyway.”

    Is 90% of science bullshit? I somehow doubt it. Art is prey to this kind of “unspecified” drivel because so much of it today requires explaining to rich patrons who buy it but don’t know what it’s for aside from being an investment in rare objects.

    The art world would avoid the fish-in-a-barrel problem if it justified its products with more honesty than it currently manages. But then they’d have to start getting more critical and that would affect the profits of a lot of galleries (and bad artists), wouldn’t it?

  6. yes, 90% of science is bullshit. We just don’t hear about it because science has a hard core system of peer review which would not work in art.

    Why did you ignore the part about finding the good and telling us about it?

    Blogging, and the commentosphere, are for the most part not too different from listening to a bunch of cranky losers sitting at a bar jawing about stuff they don’t have a clue about. BLDGBLOG is not like that at all, thank goodness. I would hate to see it go that way.

    look for the good, great and strange and report back. Leave the carping for journeyman alcoholics.

  7. BLDGBLOG is vast network of searching robots with no desire. An amoral machine designed for benevelent purpose gone strangely, but not boringly, wrong.

    Steer away from these shoals, Geoffrey, before it is too late and all your work suddenly rises up to devour its creator in an attempt to ‘understand’ his art.

    words are merely representation. lies about lies. A string of words can appear to make sense, but then slurge candodly into some conkerectomy. If you see what I mean.

    This can be good or bad.

  8. There’s no BLDGBLOG crisis… The descriptions of these photos are particularly heinous, and if I were presenting these I’d feel obligated to point that out.

  9. Well, I found the post and the comment thread entertaining. The post reminded me of the more or less annual debunking artcles run by the NY Times or Washington Post or wherever as a substitute for actually covering more or less any academic conference that is in town. Criticizing how art critics write (or much of what passes for prose in wide expanses of the humanities) IS like shooting frogs in a barrel. But then I scrolled down the sidebar here and found in the list of “good books” works by Derrida, Agamben Debord and Foucault none of whom could write for beans (well, maybe excepting Foucault at times). And the problem with most art & humanities writing is that it mimics the opaque and pretentious Parisian prose that such folks purveyed.

  10. Well, I don’t think BLDGBLOG is being dragged into a void of disaffection and negativity by this single post; I don’t think I’m steering toward any shoals, in other words. But maybe I’m wrong. In fact, I was consciously aware, while writing this post, that BLDGBLOG is so enthusiastic about everything all the time that, at some point, surely there’s a little room to point out flaws and short-comings, whether those are rhetorical, structural, theoretical, etc.? Otherwise, it’d be like reading a perpetual sugar-high.

    The essays, accompanying van der Salm’s photos, seemed too bad to let lie. If anything, I would think pointing out a few bad things here and there is refreshing – I think there are maybe three BLDGBLOG posts – perhaps even two – that focus on the negative, and this is one of them. And there are something like 575 posts.

    I also don’t mean to imply, in writing this post, that art should never be discussed, or that art somehow sits outside the reach of verbal representation, or that no one should ever describe, interpret, or talk about art. I just find it completely absurd, for example, that, because some more or less uninteresting paper came out thirty years ago talking about “art and objecthood,” if you now want to talk about, say, a work of art as a material object… all the sudden you’re supposed to cite Michael Fried. Or you have to cite Adorno. Or you have to cite Rosalind Krauss, for god’s sake. Even worse, a whole generation of students now has to read something that was never interesting to begin with, simply to underline that one, brief idea that anyone with a strong cup of coffee and an hour at a museum could have figured out for themselves.

    It’s like issuing frivolous trademarks: someone trademarks the phrase “happy birthday” – and so now every time I say “happy birthday” I owe them 10 cents. This is almost identical to most academic work today; someone mentions warfare and technology and all the sudden they have to cite Paul Virilio, as if Paul Virilio Inc. has trademarked the entire conversation in advance. Or you mention hotels, architecture, and the future of urban design – and so you better footnote Fred Jameson or, what – he’ll sue…? It’s ridiculous; yet thousands of terrified and submissive (yet over-paid) academics the world over actually believe in these territorial claims. So they fill whole books and bibliographies with unnecessary citations, under the assumption that certain idea are the property or domain of, say, Fredric Jameson®.

    The deference to imaginary authority that exists in the academic humanities today drives me up the wall – especially when it comes from people who otherwise espouse political views completely at odds with the way they conduct themselves intellectually. Art history, as a discipline, is the worst and most offensive example of this.

    So I’m not opposed – in any way – to discussing art; but I am opposed to dragging people into conversations – Rosalind Krauss, etc. – when they don’t actually belong there. The lack of art awareness in today’s culture, whatever that means, is unfairly passed off as a failure of government funding – but a failure of government funding is only part of the problem; those of you who achieve tenure, or award publishing contracts, or write wall-texts for art museums, or edit ArtForum or even Critical Inquiry, would do well to rethink the way you discuss these otherwise totally clear, accessible, and even exciting artistic interests. Otherwise, don’t complain that no one knows anything about art. It’s like someone with bad breath not understanding why no one will kiss them.

    And I’m also not anti-theory; as Jim points out, I openly recommend a few beautifully written books by Derrida, Foucault, Agamben, etc., in the righthand column of the blog. I don’t even think I’m anti-bullshit, frankly.

  11. a picture’s worth a 1000 (un-specified) words after all ®…

    = whilst on the subject of “good” (or bad, depending where yr from) art criticism…

    Dave Hickey’s “Air Guitar” worth a mention…

    any other contemporaries (unfortunate word)?

    or can we consider “holisitc” criticism the only relevant form of inquiry? ie: Adam Greenfield, Mike Davis, Slavoj Zizek as applied to sculpture…

  12. Dave Hickey is actually not a bad counterpoint, as he would probably say that gov’t funding was actually the root of the whole problem. The idea being that if art is a commodity and is traded as such people will form opinions on their own to fill a kind of market vacuum. To trade is to discuss, or something like that. And if one cannot be vocally expressive of one’s theories on art without using dead theorists like pokemon cards, perhaps we can merely debate with our wallets.

  13. I am an intuitive. I went throgh the academy and almost nothing stuck to me. I do love art, even art I don’t understand. In fact I think undertanding is over-rated.

    I rail constantly about the nonsense that is spouted in art text and how the university has spoiled art. Tenured types smugly ignore me. The generation of artists emerging now are pretty much in agreement with me though and have rejected theory as a basis for making art. They embrace a sort of intentionally stupid facade in order to disarm the theorists and avoid the slippery slope of language. (that really is someone else’s job) Good writing skills do not make good artists, but do make it easier to pass off crap as art. and we have a field in intellectual decline to prove it.

    So when I came here and found these thoughts echoing back from the other side of the fence, from outside the field, I was annoyed and embarassed. Yes my field is full of crap and needs a good hosing down, ala hercules, but there are promising developments and always points of exception.

    I riffed on it, not entirely seriously. I don’t think you’re on the shoals at all or even headed there. I sometimes imagine leading a revolt against the smug negativity of the blogosphere and especially the commentosphere. It’s too easy to sit back and find fault. It is a much harder task to try to change things, find the good, great and odd and promote them as the path to something new and worthwhile.

    A bunch of architects carping about art writing is not that, sorry. I wasn’t about to sit back and watch that go unchallenged, especially at BLDGBLOG.

    The rest was just goofing around

  14. Hey Tim – No worries; you sound apologetic, but there’s nothing to apologize for. I liked being called out and wished it happened more often, frankly.

    As far as Dave Hickey goes, I also think he’s a great example of unpretentious art writing, but I would contrast autoautistic’s comment with John Coulthart’s comment, above – and I would agree with John C, that the free market produces a whole lot of bullshit in its attempt to make us “debate with our wallets.” That is the same style of debate, after all, that fills the world (especially North American dorm rooms) with M.C. Escher, Salvador Dali, and The Da Vinci Code (N.b.: I like M.C. Escher).

    Stephen King out-sells W.G. Sebald by a margin I can hardly conceive – and I think, in that case, that the market chose wrong. But that’s just a question of literary taste, not a structural problem with the market itself – and so I agree with autoautistic’s larger point viz government control over the art market. After all, when the CIA was underwriting Abstract Expressionism, both sides of the political equation thought it was a marriage both morally questionable and intellectually doomed. For opposite reasons, of course.

    Assuming that’s even true.

  15. Geoff – Keep thinking about the sugar high. If the occasional piece of criticism produces comments as enjoyable as these, let’s have more of it.

    Tim – Geoff is better placed to carp about the writing skills of other fields than most of us, since he’s already had his say about architects:

    But generally you’re absolutely right about the painful smug negativity of the blogosphere. I used to subscribe to The Gutter, but in the end it just made me nauseous.

  16. oulipo as applied to art theory? = over-zealous pretension + 7? deconstructive snowballs? macao period constraints?


    I have only swam in the manual once but fully intend to re-explore when I next chance upon a 2nd hand copy someplace… naturally I’ve imposed conditions in this finding…

    wormholes are caused by larvae… feeding to transform themselves into beetles..

  17. Well said, Geoff. One last parting shot:

    1. The other good thing about “unpretentious” art writing (or any criticism for that matter) is that by not hedging itself or requiring undue support from endless footnotes, it becomes more malleable, which I feel makes it much more generative. More ossified, academic criticism often seems to be more focused on categorizing and “freezing” the subject under discussion, so that it can be filed away and added to someone’s CV (copetent with MS Word, 3d Max and 70’s minimalist land art).

    2) I always feel that when Hickey talks about the “market,” he’s more referring to an informal network of traders, and doesn’t really take into account the “anti-market” forces that have a great amount of real control over any kind of designed commodity. In other words, I think he’s exactly right in insinuating more gets explored in after-show parties and blog forums than in most art quarterlies. But saying that King outselling Sebald is an example of pure market force is oversimplifying things. This is what critcism used to do– point a big arrow at something current that is really, really good, augmenting or even circumventing normal market action. I think the problem is when criticism gets institutionalized and formulaic.

  18. This is going to be boring, but just wanted to make a comment on the following passage from Geoff’s comments:

    It’s like issuing frivolous trademarks: someone trademarks the phrase “happy birthday” – and so now every time I say “happy birthday” I owe them 10 cents. This is almost identical to most academic work today; someone mentions warfare and technology and all the sudden they have to cite Paul Virilio, as if Paul Virilio Inc. has trademarked the entire conversation in advance.

    Interestingly, ideas cannot be protected by copyright. The unique expression of an idea can be copyrighted. Copyright generally serves to protect the rights of an “author” in her minimally original work expressed in a fixed medium (paper, film, audio, sketch, tatoo, etc.). Copyright protections exist for a limited time (although the limited term of protection is constantly extended by Congress — subject of the recent Eldred decision in the Supreme Court). After the term of copyright protection expires, the work falls into the public domain and may be copied and used in any manner by anyone (see, e.g., Huckleberry Finn, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, etc.).

    Trademark protection serves a somewhat different purpose. Trademark protects the marks used by entities in connection with the sale or provision of goods or services. Trademark protection is not intended to protect creative works — rather it is intended to allow entities to control the use of the mark they use in connection with their provision of goods and services and preclude others from using or copying their mark in connection with the sale of similar goods (counterfeiting, passing off “Mike” sneakers, etc.). Generic and descriptive words (and marks) are generally impossible to protect — the law and the Patent and Trademark Office will not allow a coffee company to register a trademark for “coffee” and thereby prevent competitors from accurately and truthfully describing their own goods. Interestingly, if a particular brand becomes too successful (e.g., “band-aid” or “xerox”), it can come, in common usage, to stand in for the actual item itself (i.e., the brand name “band-aid” becomes the standard term for “bandage”) and the trademark can lose its protection.

    Both copyright (by statute) and trademark (by judicial doctrine) are subject to the doctrine of fair use. (This is the doctrine Wikipedia and bloggers rely on when they cut excerpts from other publications or thumbnail images.) In a nutshell, a use of copyrighted or trademarked material will constitute fair use if it is a (1) minimal excerpt of the work (e.g., a small excerpt from a book), (2) sufficiently transformative as to make the new work in which the copyrighted or trademarked work is incorporated entirely new (see for example, 2 Live Crew’s use of Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” — which use implicated the “parody” doctrine — a subset of fair use; see also The Wind Done Gone case), and/or (3) the use by the subsequent author does not supplant the market demand for the original work (e.g., 2 Live Crew’s use of Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” did not supplant the demand for the original song — people who wanted “Pretty Woman” would not by the rap song instead — this gets into interesting territory with parody, since a vicious parody of a work may partially kill of demand for the original work, but First Amendment values protect this aspect of parody).

    Sorry for the totally boring legal blather — just thought it would be interesting to outline some of these points: it seems that intellectual property is an issue somewhat relevant to the broader BLDGBLOG discussion. Overextension and overprotection of copyright, trademark, and patent is a serious issue, and should be strongly resisted.

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